Why one of the 1st Asian American YA novels still resonates 30 years later

Lakshmi Gandhi

Nearly 30 years after her debut novel, "Finding My Voice," was published, Marie Myung-Ok Lee now realizes that she was using it to send a message to her high school classmates.

"I kind of wrote this book for my bullies. A lot of them would make stupid, racist jokes and then say, 'Oh, I'm just kidding,' when I'd get upset," Lee said. "I wanted them to feel what that felt like."

"Finding My Voice," initially released in 1992 as one of the first Asian American young adult novels, centers on Ellen Sung, a Korean American high school senior in rural Minnesota. Ellen's parents don't understand why she wants to focus on the gymnastics team and her friends in addition to academics and college applications. When Ellen, the daughter of one of the town's only doctors, develops a crush on one of the most popular boys in school, the gulf between herself and her parents grows even bigger.

IMAGE: Marie Myung-Ok Lee (Adrianne Mathiowetz)
IMAGE: Marie Myung-Ok Lee (Adrianne Mathiowetz)

"My first urge when I wrote this novel was not 'I want to write a novel about identity,'" said Lee, who is Korean American. "It was more this urge where I just wanted to write a novel about my experience growing up in the Midwest."

"Finding My Voice" was out of print two years ago when it got new attention after it was included on a BuzzFeed list of young adult novels "that have stood the test of time." With the release of a new edition this month by SoHo Teen, Lee's debut novel is finding a new generation of American readers.

There is one aspect of the story she wishes wasn't as relevant today. "When I was growing up, I experienced a lot of physical violence," Lee said of bullying. "There are just certain things that happened to me when I was younger and smaller that I think about that a lot."

The depiction of those experiences has stayed with readers, as well. The poet Ed Bok Lee read "Finding My Voice" during his second year of college. "I remember being drawn-in by the compelling coming-of-age honesty and openness of the voice," Lee, who is no relation to the author, wrote in an email.

Ed Bok Lee said that the book perfectly captured the turmoil many second-generation Asian Americans felt navigating their parents' expectations and that it helped pave the way for other writers to explore similar themes today.

He pointed to a line that still resonates: "One day, I think to myself, I will figure out how to please my parents without silencing my own voice."

"In many ways, a lot of Asian American teens are still dealing with the personal and social problems that are depicted in 'Finding My Voice,'" he said.

Part of Ellen's isolation comes because she felt she couldn't tell her parents what she was experiencing or because she felt like an outsider.

"When Ellen was born, it was a very different time. That's really where the tension is — she doesn't know what it's like to be Korean, because historically there were no other Koreans in her town," Lee said. "It's not like today, where people feel fine about being bilingual or keeping their culture."

Those aspects of the story are a reason Jane Hong, an associate professor of history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, remembers "Finding My Voice" distinctly. Hong was introduced to the book after her older sister brought it home from the library when she was a teenager.

"It is one of the first books where I felt like I actually had some kind of personal connection or understanding of the main protagonist in the story," said Hong, who was in middle school when the book was first published. "That didn't happen very often in the '90s."

Marie Myung-Ok Lee said she often hears from writers in their 30s and 40s who say "Finding My Voice" helped them realize that there's an audience for Asian American stories. The latest edition includes a new introduction by the bestselling author Kat Cho, one of several Korean American authors who have followed in Lee's footsteps and have released popular young adult novels. Cho first read the book as an adult, and "I wish I'd had Ellen to guide me through those hard feelings from when I was a teen," she wrote in her introduction.

The book's appeal has endured, but Lee's initial road to publication in 1992 was rocky. "We sent it out to approximately 22 publishers, all of whom said no," Lee said. "My favorite rejection was from someone who said, 'Oh, we already published a book that was set in Cambodia.' Of course, that book was by a white woman."

Lee's struggle to find a home for "Finding My Voice" also reflects the longstanding challenge authors of color face in American publishing. A recent New York Times analysis of more than 8,000 English-language fiction books by American publishers from 1950 to 2018 found that 95 percent were written by white authors.

While she considered updating parts of the book that seem dated — in one scene, Ellen carefully studies a Seventeen magazine article about makeup tips for "Oriental" eyes — Lee ultimately decided not to change the text because the heart of the story still felt fresh.

Lee said it's particularly painful that one of the main reasons "Finding My Voice" still feels so relevant is the bullying and racial taunting Ellen experiences.

Studies from recent years have shown that Asian American, Sikh and Muslim youths are disproportionately bullied in school and that the problem has only grown during the pandemic. A report in September from Stop AAPI Hate found that 1 in 4 Asian American children and young adults faced "verbal harassment, shunning and cyberbullying" related to the coronavirus.

But while Asian American teens continue to experience racist bullying, Lee hopes readers find that there are also always people willing to help.

"I'm still friends with a lot of my friends from high school, and this has really made me appreciate that I had this network of friends who would speak up for me," she said.